Let me be honest with you. I feel a hunger for content on narrative design and writing for games. While articles and tutorials and twitter threads on different gamedev crafts abound, the story part feels a bit underrepresented.
Every time I do find a tutorial, or an article, or an academic paper on the subject, It either sounds repetitive, inconclusive or too within the industry for it to be useful to a clueless beginner like myself.
That being said, this “On Writing” series doesn’t intend to fill this gap. Oh, no, I’m far from being able of giving anybody lessons on how interactive fiction works. But I figured that what I CAN do is share the things I learn on my sparse, yet intense game jam and solo project experiences.
These will be mindless meditations and post-mortens of games I helped developing, focusing on their narrative design and writing aspects, featuring some inconclusive theories and tips you should NOT take as absolute.
My main objective with these articles is reaching other people who may also be interested in this often-neglected part of videogame development. So you can maybe learn a thing or two from my own mistakes (and teach me a thing or two by leaving a comment, or tweeting at me).
So, shall we begin?
Participating on a Game Jam
I’ve been flirting with the idea of writing for games for half a decade now. I’ve gamejamed a bit at a couple of occasions with some friends and daydreamed with some others about fun designs.
But I like to consider my first experience as being in 2017’s Global Game Jam.
For starters, participating in a jam at the second biggest GGJ gathering in the world was an inspiring experience. Hundreds and hundreds of sleep-deprived nerds teaming up to create janky game prototypes and having the time of their lives filled my own sleep-deprived nerdy heart with joy and certainty that was a community I wanted to be part of.
But anyway, how was our work process?
Deciding on a concept
The theme for that jam was “waves”. In case you’re not familiar with how a Game Jam works, you’re provided a theme from which you have to develop a fully playable prototype of a game. In 48 hours. Which basically means that you must work intensely, solve problems fast and focus on finishing something instead of getting lost on minutiae.
While we fidgeted with some ideas, We quickly decided the best mechanic genre would be a visual novel, so we could build an experience around Flam’s art and my writing with a doable amount of programming and implementation required.
Deciding on an idea that would fit the theme, though, proved to be harder than we thought. This was, in my opinion, issue number 1: lack of assertiveness and systematic procedures. In other words, we lacked a balance between team direction and individual input.
It is important to have fun. But you also want to be as efficient as possible with your time and resources. Unfortunately, we wasted a full day on indecisiveness. We brainstormed a lot, but we kind of sucked at making each other understand the ideas we were having and, thus, wasting precious development time.
Finally, as we were feeding our frustration some delicious sushi, we came up with the definitive scenario, one that the three of us liked: a samurai cat in mythical Japan has to save his village from the menace of a God of the seas and his giant waves. Flam sketched the concept and won us over. It was adorable.
At this point, though, we barely had half of the time we originally did. A visual novel would require an anxiety-inducing amount of improvisation and asset production and implementation and… And we certainly did not have enough confidence for that.
That’s how the original mechanic proposition had to shift from a rather traditional visual novel to an illustrated interactive fiction, mainly dependent on text descriptions and hypertextual branching.
From defining both the story and the form of our game, we could finally have notion of what was supposed to be made and by whom:
· Flam would illustrate some crucial points of the story.
· Koga would set the engines and gather the resources that might help with the implementation of this particular project.
· I would design the narrative, its branching paths and cul-de-sacs. And I would also write.
Naturally, for Flam to be able to draw anything, I had to sketch a basic structure right away. This fact alone forced me to set in stone some aspects of the story and, therefore, the game.
Every illustration would represent an important event in the story. Considering the limited amount of time, we couldn’t afford anything too fancy.
Still chasing simplicity, I decided to follow a straightforward three-act hero’s journey structure, totalizing five chapters, or “events”:
1) Introduction/Call to adventure.
2) First challenge/Crossing the threshold.
3) Second challenge/Approach to the inmost cave.
4) Third challenge/Resurrection.
5) Climax/Return with the elixir.
We quickly brainstormed events that would fit these categories. Not caring about the clichés, we decided on:
1) The protagonist, Hiro, is chosen to save his village from the God of the Sea.
2) Hiro fights a forest oni.
3) Hiro fights a specter.
4) Hiro convinces the God of the Island to help his people.
5) The God of the Sea and the God of the Island clash.
As soon as we had these figured out, Flam started working. He reached to me from time to time in order to send sketches and ask a couple of questions about the concept, but our contact with him remained at a minimum.
On the other hand, Koga also needed to know a couple of things about the story in order to get to work. Namely, he had to know how it would be structured, mechanically speaking. And that’s where it gets tricky.
My code literacy, my engine familiarity and my relationship with game design were (and still remain) quite limited. So, at this part, I felt like I was relying solely on gut feeling, which isn’t precisely the most reassuring thing.
That’s issue number 2: I didn’t know enough about essential factors of game development. I lacked technical notions and vocabulary that might’ve helped me communicate more efficiently with my programmer and, in the process, build a better and more effective story. Therefore, a good lesson would be to educate yourself in more than just your part of the craft. A good game is the sum of its parts. And when you’re working with more people on a tight schedule, being able to have and convey ideas with minumum effort is key.
Not without some headaches, we arrived atthe following structure:
A Viagem de Hiro is divided in 5 chapters. Except chapters 1 and 5, they all need to have at least one fail-state, to which the player may arrive by choosing wrong interaction options. When the player fails, they are thrown back to the beginning of the chapter and have try again.
Three major reasons guided these decisions:
1) That’s the bare minimum, from our point of view, for it to be unequivocally considered a game, instead of a plain, linear ergodic narrative in which you have to click your way through progress.
2) The possibility of reaching a game-over, while not too punitive since the chapters are short, gives a minimum amount of weight to the player decisions.
3) Due to the lack of time, any interaction beyond “option a -> path a / option b -> path b” would require design and implementation time we did not have.
Getting to work!
Having that settled as well, we could finally get to work! Koga focused on implementing Yarn to Unity and I focused on writing.
For my own purposes, I sketched a small flowchart to further organize my story structure.
That’s how chapter 2, “A floresta”, was built. Having this as a visual reference allowed me to also organize my workflow into steps. Every node, or bit of writing, meant a concrete step towards completion, instead of an abstract notion of progress.
That also gave me and my peers a good vision of the scope. From those structures, I was able to pinpoint player interactions and key moments, like when Flam’s illustrations were supposed to be revealed.
By the way! As you must’ve noted by now, the chosen language for this game was Brazilian Portuguese. That was decided over the fact of that being a Brazilian game jam, a text-based game would be way more enjoyable in the player’s native language! Besides, at the time my confidence on my English wasn’t that great. My work would flow way smoother in a language I felt more comfortable with.
The idea of translating it afterwards crossed my mind, but I believe that it’s been too long now. I’d rather focus time and effort on making new stuff. Like this “post-mortem” of a game you probably can’t play because you don’t know Portuguese.
Specifically on writing ‘A Viagem de Hiro’
From this point forward, the biggest challenge was… well… working through the night in order to deliver my part of the content in time for implementation.
Like in every piece of writing ever written, that first (and only) draft ended up being way longer than it was supposed to be.
While you can plan your way through writing, its process still requires a ton of improvisation and coming up with ideas that will fill up the gaps between planned events. Those blank spaces are terrifyingly unpredictable. And while you can structure every single sentence of your story, you also want to finish it in a reasonable amount of time. This is even more true when you simply need to deliver it as soon as possible.
So I just tried to let my fingers and a subconscious state of “flow” do all the work.
Well, of course it wouldn’t be that simple.
My main goal was to finish a straight-forward interactive narrative. But it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be interesting to write (and, hell, to read). So I dedicated at least five minutes to thinking about what makes those clichés I was going to build my story around so interesting to the point of becoming clichés in the first place.
To that point, my story had been structured around shortcuts and commonplaces. This supposes the risk of it ending up not being a story, but… an aesthetic. Something easily recognizable, expected, but essentially meaningless.
Having that in mind, I tried building every chapter around a theme. Something that pulls every story bit together and makes it organic. Or at least as organic as this well-known structure would allow it to be. Something that expanded on the theme “waves”.
I was telling a very basic story: a fisherman (fishercat?) has to save his people from annihilation by entering the forbidden part of his land, overcoming supernatural challenges and imploring for help to a god who has been asleep for millennia. So, why not going a step further? Why not making Hiro’s journey be about something more than just adventure and magical peril?
That’s why I decided to be a coward and use subtext!
In all my sleepy pretentiousness, I decided to make Hiro’s journey about how History, when ignored, can bring dire consequences to a community. How History is never linear, but a constant tide.
I turned the different conflicts into gradual metaphors:
1) The forest oni became a reflection of the fear of the people of exploring its past and knowing the world they live in.
2) The spirit Hiro finds in the mountain offers a dialogue on death and life without memory of times past.
3) The encounter with God, on the top of the mountain, makes Hiro connect the dots and realize how, in order to solve historical problems, you as an individual AND a member of a community, must figure your shit out, drop your fear of past menaces and engage past solutions with a critical mind and enough energy to not let the cycle go on.
4) The epic fight in the end is a metaphor for how awesome and cute cats are.
Having a theme in mind while you’re writing doesn’t mean your main objective is to convey a message. Your main objective still must be writing something interesting or fun, something worthwhile. Themes are just a tool for that, they help cutting the arbitrariness from your writing, they give a reason for every bit to be. Even if the reader/player doesn’t get what you meant, even if the player builds their own meaning (always remember how dead the author is, even though it is more complicated than that), the general feel of the story will be more consistent, more assertive.
Besides, it served as a good base for deciding what kind of interactions would fit every chapter better. For example, the oni in the forest is a fighting sequence because surpassing the first layer of fear can be a violent experience, one you have to slice your way through. The spirit in the mountain is a dialogue-puzzle, with no violence, because you can’t kill death, you can only make sense out of its enigmatic existence. Finally, in order to awake the God of the Island and convince him to help you, you have to solve an environmental puzzle that brings back information from the first two encounters.
This way, I tried to give this humble little text game some variety within its mechanical limitations.
As I finished the chapters, I sent them to Koga. Miraculously, we were able to wrap everything up in time! Hurray!
I was so exhausted that I didn’t even want to see other people playing it at the time. But now I remember ‘A Viagem de Hiro’ fondly as my first real game-thing. It was the first time games felt a bit less mystified as this unreachable sorcery. This experience showed me my limitations, sure, but most of all it showed me how I can be useful to a gamedev team.
I hope this article can be somewhat useful to you. I know writing it was useful to me.